Narrative Basics Lesson 2: Action

Describing action

Interpersonal action

This last type of action can be a little slippery, but it's a useful idea if you can grasp it.

If said I pushed Samantha, that would be a physical action, right? Sure.

Now if I said I talked to Samantha, that would also be a physical action... but it's not quite the same: pushed is relatively clear, talked is a little more vague: like you can imagine my mouth moving, but you're not sure how long it goes for, what I'm saying... Talk is a relatively abstract verb compared to push.

And I said I convinced Samantha—is that a physical action? Of course in some way it is, because I must have talked or written to Samantha in some concrete way. But in another way it's not, because the concrete physical action is really hidden inside this abstract verb. At least if I said talked you know my mouth was moving, but persuaded could mean anything: talking, texting, writing, even just raising an eyebrow.

So we might call this type of action interpersonal action to indicate what happens socially and emotionally between people.

For example, take a look at this snippet, about the dynamics between some girls in school.

One of the girls at school had told me, matter-of-factly, that I didn’t quite belong with them, that there was something different about me. I’d pressed her to tell me what it was. Her eyes narrowed as she thought.

SanctuaryJennifer McKissackSource

Can you see the interpersonal actions?

  • Telling someone something
  • Belonging to a group
  • Pressuring someone

They're all different levels of abstraction.

  • Telling: you can imagine someone's mouth moving as they speak
  • Pressing: this doesn't mean literally pressing, it means applying pressure, and again we can sort of imagine someone leaning forward, speaking insistently, but we don't know the details
  • Belonging: this is the most abstract of all, it could mean anything, you might imagine someone sitting with friends, laughing, leaning towards each other—or being quiet and turning away uncomfortably if they don't belong—but either way you are filling in a lot of blanks

So these are all interpersonal actions. They have their roots in physical or internal actions, but they have been summarised into distinctively social and interpersonal verbs.

Here’s a different snippet with different interpersonal actions.

He’d need one of his parents to take him to the jail, and telling his father—though another option—wasn’t really a good one either. His father wanted nothing to do with Aaron and insisted Miles also have nothing to do with Aaron, so there was a good chance Miles’s dad would want that embargo to remain intact.

Miles Morales: Spider-ManJason ReynoldsSource

What actions do we have?

  • Needing someone to do something
  • Telling someone something
  • Wanting nothing to do with someone
  • Insisting someone do or not do something

Again, you can see how each of these are at root either internal actions (need, want) or physical actions (tell, insist), but at the same time in they are fundamentally social and interpersonal.

Confused? Don't worry: this is a slippery concept. We're only highlighting it here to help you notice that you probably talk about interpersonal actions all the time—every time you summarise the interaction between people—but you might not use them in your writing as readily if they weren't pointed out to you.

Here are some more examples to get you thinking.

The old man asked Alexei for a coffee, and told him about the overnight drive to get into town while he waited. Alexei idly listened to the story as he poured the coffee out, inviting the man to sit at the table. He eyed the door, hoping for another customer to distract him.

The couple were negotiating which slice of cake they wanted from the cabinet. Once they had agreed, the woman caught Cassie’s eye. Cassie served them the cake on a plate, and the woman thanked her.

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